Over the past several months the images on TV and the headlines of the newspaper seem like a “deja vous” moment and a flashback to the 60’s. Images of violent protests in the streets flash across the screen. Newspaper headlines blast accusations of racial prejudice, profiling and injustice. As a teenager growing up in Washington D.C. in the 60’s, I saw Resurrection City, the marches, the protests and the riots after Martin Luther King’s death. We lived under Marshal Law with machine guns and tanks on every corner for two weeks. Racial tensions were high and conversations about the issues were common in classrooms, churches, on college campuses and around the dinner table.As the 1970’s came to an end we felt like progress had been made. Busing ended desegregation of the schools, people now drank from any water fountain they pleased and sat wherever they wanted on the bus. Children of all colors played sports together and people of color held top jobs in prestigious companies. Headlines of racial tension became less frequent and there was a collective sigh of relief that we had finally arrived.
So what has happened? One of the pieces to this complex puzzle is the fact that we have stopped having the conversation with our children. Over the past two decades racial issues are not at the forefront of conversations in classrooms, college campuses, teacher education programs, churches and homes. We have made the assumption that the racial tensions of previous generations are over.
The truth is we have to have the conversation about racial issues with each generation. Our brains are wired for survival. Whenever we encounter something novel or different our brain goes on alert. So when a young Caucasian child or a black child encounters someone with a different skin color the experience doesn’t match the children’s mental template of what is “normal.” Fear is the brain’s automatic reaction. Unless children have adults present in their lives who are aware of the issues and invite open conversation about likeness and differences among people this initial fear response can morph into lifelong prejudice.
I sometimes hear adults say they are, “color blind” with regard to race. I understand the intent of their comment but the fact is that children are not colorblind. As they are trying to figure out how the world works they are noticing likenesses and differences among people and objects. They notice skin color, texture of hair and differences in personal features. I once had a little boy say to me, “My mama said you are a white lady. You aren’t white…you’re tan.” Other children joined the conversation and another said, “Somebody called me a black boy. I’m not black. I’m brown!”
Children need to grow up knowing that we are all “fearfully and wonderfully made.” They need to see important adults model respect for those who are of different races and cultures. We need to invite their questions and be willing to talk about differences openly. There are many books on the market that can spark meaningful conversations with our children and some simple activities that they will enjoy.
I Love My Hair by Natasha Tarpley
The Colors of Us
He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand
1. Purchase multicultural paints and figure out what color matches the child’s skin tone and the skin of other family members. Make self and family portraits.
2. Purchase multicultural crayons and draw friends and family.
3. Talk about all the ways that people are alike and different. We all have the same need for love, food, shelter and clothing. We are all different in appearances, abilities and interests.
4. Participate in community festivals that celebrate different ethnicities reflected in your community.
As school is entering the final week in the surrounding districts of my town, I can’t help but think about the long list of children who will end their year crestfallen and disappointed as they walk out of the inevitable awards assemblies. As a parent and a teacher there was nothing so conflicting to me as this seemingly sacred tradition that schools inflicted upon children every year. Typically, the reason given for these mindless ceremonies is the belief that it somehow motivates children to excellence. Before I go any further, lest you think this is sour grapes, my children got the awards. This inevitably put me in an awkward position of responding positively to this tradition that I so despised.
Why am I opposed to these meaningless ceremonies? Stop and think about who gets the awards. It is the same children every year, perhaps sprinkled with a few surprises now and then. It is typically the children who have parents who are highly invested in their learning and in their lives in general. One of the things that we know from research is that parent involvement is a huge factor related to success in school. This is not something that a child can control.
I will never forget the face of a child in my neighborhood after a second grade awards assembly. This child showed up, hand in hand with her mom for the awards ceremony. It was no secret that this family was going through a messy divorce. As I watched them walk to their seats, the eager anticipation on the child’s face prompted me to whisper a prayer that she would be recognized. Her name was never called. With crestfallen face and a quivering lip, she left the assembly with her mom. My heart broke for her. I could only imagine how difficult the year had been for her. She deserved an award simply for getting out of bed each morning and getting herself to school.
Many of the awards that are given are arbitrary and difficult to define. For example, a common practice is to give “good citizen” or “outstanding student” awards. How do you define a “good citizen” in a way that is meaningful to young children? What does an outstanding student look like? How many times can you make a mistake, get in conflict with another child and not be a “good citizen?” And when we recognize the “outstanding students” the young children left sitting in the chairs automatically interpret it as “I’m not outstanding.” If a young child’s success in school was purely driven by his own initiative, effort and “smarts” it would be one thing. But success in school in the early years is largely related to factors beyond the child’s control.
Every child deserves to be celebrated—not rewarded. Instead of meaningless awards assemblies, why don’t schools end the year with a “celebration of learning.” Every child has accomplished and learned something during the school year for which they feel an element of pride. This doesn’t mean that I believe very child should get a trophy or a piece of paper called a “certificate” to take home. Let the child identify something they accomplished that is meaningful to them and celebrate it. Invite the parents, let the children create a display, read a poem, sing a song, demonstrate a science experiment or do whatever is appropriate to demonstrate what they have learned.
For one kindergartener it may simply be writing his name without adult help. For another kindergartener it might be writing and illustrating a simple story. The playing field is not even when children come to school. Both of these abilities need to be celebrated.
Celebrating children’s accomplishments isn’t the same as giving everyone a trophy—another practice that I loth. Trophies are handed out by adults for reasons that are often meaningless to a child. My daughter was very ill one year and missed most of the school year. She got the trophy for “missing the most days of school.” She brought it home and immediately threw it in the trash. In first grade she won the “outstanding student of the year” award. Years later in a random conversation around the dinner table she recalled the time that she was standing on the stage with the principal. “What was that all about?” she asked. We got a good laugh that she won the so called top award for the year and didn’t even know it.
Celebrations of learning allow children to identify and celebrate things that are meaningful to them. This is the kind of recognition that can truly build a sense of personal confidence and competence. Are awards assemblies inappropriate at all ages? I don’t know. I speak from the perspective of an early childhood educator. Perhaps they have a place in high school but I have my doubts. Learning at all ages is largely influenced by many factors outside the child’s control. But I do know that it is appropriate to celebrate all children, regardless of age, for meaningful reasons.
I was recently standing in line at the grocery store and watched a common scenario play out in front of me. A child about three years old was whining and crying for a candy bar. The mom was obviously frazzled as she tried to unload her groceries onto the counter, pay attention to a baby that was becoming increasingly upset and retrieve all kinds of candy and contraband her three year old was trying to put into his pockets. His demands and his cries for a candy bar got louder and louder. The mom’s agitation became more evident. Finally, she reached out and grabbed him by the arm and jerked him away from the candy rack which we all know was very intentionally and strategically placed to evoke such scenes. But, when she pulled him to her side, the child did the “wet noodle” thing and flopped to the floor. He began to kick and scream. Mom’s demands became louder and her actions became more frantic as she tried to pull the child to his feet and demand his cooperation. When it was all said and done, mom dragged the child kicking and screaming to the car while she pushed the cart with the screaming baby with her other hand. I could see them getting into the car with both children screaming and a frazzled mom throwing her groceries into the back of the car.
Self regulation has been identified as one of the critical ingredients for well being and success in life. Self regulation is defined as the capacity to manage strong emotions, behavior and thinking. Let’s start with emotional regulation. As with most things in parenting the answer begins with the adults. Dr. Bruce Perry says, “The unorganized brain requires the full presence of a more organized brain to organize.” In other words, in order for a child to learn to manage his emotions, he must first have a well regulated adult presence in his life. Our brains have what are called, “mirror neurons.” They function sort of like a blue tooth connection between our brains, allowing us to read the non-verbal cues of another person. Through body language, facial expressions and gesture, we can read the intentions and emotional state of another person even without any words being spoken. Through this invisible connection, children actually “download” our emotional state.
Remaining calm in the face of conflict is the first step in helping our children successfully manage their emotional states but this is obviously more easily said than done. A parent cannot give a child something they don’t have. A dysregulated parent will most likely result in a dysregulated child.
There are several important things that parents can do to help themselves manage their strong emotions:
- Sleep. Lack of sleep is perhaps the biggest enemy of good parenting. When we are tired and sleep deprived it is difficult to mange our unruly feelings appropriately.
- Exercise. Getting aerobic exercise on a regular bases can help to keep the nervous system in top running condition.
- Relaxed pace. Children were never made to be hurried. When we hurry children we set them up for failure and dysregulation.
- Deep breathing. When adults feel themselves becoming agitated or otherwise dysregulated, try deep breathing.
- Relationships. Parents need satisfying relationshjps outside of the home. Take time to enjoy time with friends.
- Rhythmic activity. When you feel yourself becoming dysregualted and agitated, do some kind of rhythmic activity. It may be rocking in a rocking chair, swinging, bouncing a basketball.
Remember, when your child starts to melt down, that is your signal to do a self check and be aware of your own emotional state. Take a deep breath, count to three and give your child your full presence. The calming presence of a more organized “other” is sometimes all a child needs to get back into a state of calm.
But what do you do when your full presence is not enough? Stay tuned for more.